Body of Evidence

by Martin Peretz | February 14, 2005

There are many iconic photographs of Marie Curie: Early on with her husband, Pierre, with whom she shared the first of her Nobel Prizes; and, after his death, standing alone with her instruments in the lab. But there are other, more telling, images as well: With her peers--among them Michelson, Rutherford, Millikan, Poincare, Kapitza, Pauli, Bohr, Fermi, and, of course, Einstein--always the lone woman. In a 1911 photograph, she is surrounded by 23 men at the Solvay physics conference in Brussels. In a photograph at Lausanne, she sits, front-row, dead center, between Einstein and Fermi in a constellation of perhaps 80 or 90 men. This was the real, very sexist, world of physics, as explained in Madame Curie, the biography written by her daughter, who also happens to be my mother-in-law, Eve Curie (still sharp of mind and agile in body although, last December, we celebrated the centenary of her birth). 

In 1911, Marie Curie was denied membership in the French Academy of Sciences--which l'Action française, a clerical paper, called "the defeat of [Alfred] Dreyfus." Her opponents were traumatized that a foreigner, a Pole no less, might be admitted. But this obscured the real prejudice: No woman had entered the sanctum of the Academie des sciences. Those were the stakes.

Madame Curie came to the United States ten years later. The president of Harvard compared her to Isaac Newton but did not award her an honorary degree because the physics department opposed it. Yale's leading physicist, Bertram Boltwood, who had applauded the university's decision not to bestow an honorary doctorate on Albert Einstein because he was "over here ... as a Zionist," also opposed one for Curie.Nonetheless, her national tour was such a success that The New York Times fretted it would provoke too many women to enter science: "[M]ore of men than women ... have the power--a necessary qualification for any real achievements in science--of viewing facts abstractly rather than relationally, without overestimating them because they harmonize with previously accepted theories."

Curie's casket joined her husband's in the cemetery at Sceaux on July 6, 1934, and they stayed together undisturbed until 1994, when Francois Mitterrand decided her remains should be transferred to the Pantheon, where not a single woman lay. What a vivid symbol with which both to break France's sexist image and to join in another one of the U.N.'s periodic jamborees, the International Year of the Woman. Mitterrand contacted my mother-in-law, not a woman to be rushed, nor easily persuaded against her honed convictions. Eve asked whether the president intended that her father's bones also be moved. Maybe Mitterrand hadn't contemplated the query. But Eve took the fumbling as a "no," a reverse piece of sexism, although she did not name it as such. And so, she did not give her consent. The next year, the president asked again, this time making clear that he envisioned the reburial as a ceremony for husband and wife. The president of France had his ceremony. And tens of thousands passed by the coffins as Pierre and Marie Curie lay in state in the Pantheon. 

I've been thinking of Madame Curie ever since Harvard President Lawrence Summers stirred a commotion with his remarks about women in the sciences. It has been 45 years since I came to Harvard as a graduate student and 39 years since I joined the faculty. At that time, there was just one female tenured full professor, Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who filled the singular Radcliffe chair designated for a woman. An important political theorist (whom I didn't like and who didn't like me), Judith Shklar, had to content herself with the title of "lecturer" until quite late in her career. My friend Agnes Mongan, who had probably taught more museum curators than anyone else in the United States, served as acting director of the Fogg for years, an incomprehensible indignity. No one can deny that Harvard has changed, and not only in regard to gender. (When I arrived, more than 10 percent of the freshman class came from Exeter and Andover, with another large cohort from the St. Grottlesex schools nationwide. Today, more than 25 percent come from homes where English is a second language.) Summers doesn't want to stop that change, he wants to accelerate it: In fact, his current obsession is the inability of growing swaths of the population to afford higher education's mounting costs, a very worthy obsession indeed.

No one serious has called Summers a sexist. (Not even Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT, who said that, if she hadn't walked out, she would have fainted or barfed.) Which is appropriate, since sexism had nothing to do with his controversial statements. What led him to wonder whether there might be small genetic variations between men and women in quantitative capacity, I suspect, was his genuine surprise that women have not risen in the fields of physics, engineering, and mathematics as fast as he thinks they could and should. He isn't in the least bit oblivious to the lingering prejudices against women in the academy. (After all, his mother is a retired professor of public policy at the Wharton School of Business and his "significant other," Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard and a valued contributor to The New Republic.)

Summers's "problem" is that he submits every argument with a grain of evidence behind it to serious and scrupulous scrutiny. And this scares our supposedly daring academic culture, which lives in fear of what it refuses to know. As yet another of Curie's biographers suggested, "She had survived because she had made men believe that they were not just dealing with an equal, but with an insensitive equal." Summers knows that the age of such painful self-denial is gone, and good riddance. Still, the academy is the academy; it is not a community center.Students ought to know more than they do, and it is on Summers's agenda that they will. No American university has yet truly grasped how the revelations of science touch on history and art, philosophy and poetry, and it is on Summers's agenda that at least Harvard will try. In all this, he imperils the unexamined orthodoxies of the ensconced. And now, his enemies see a chance to counterattack. Let's hope they fail and he succeeds. 

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.


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